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Rural areas worry about wait for aid

Officials are seeking an extra ambulance to help close gap

By Ginger Gibson
St. Tammany bureau

Friday, June 8, 2007
A “miracle” is the only way Gregg Boggs can describe what he saw last month in the Folsom fire station.

A woman with blue lips and no detectable pulse, feared dead by her companions, was brought to the fire station while Boggs was visiting Chief David Pittman.

Pittman called for an ambulance while Boggs, a retired New Orleans police officer, and two firefighters began CPR — a move that seemed futile.

After almost 20 minutes, Boggs said he was able to find a pulse, and the men gained hope the woman would survive. Color returned to her lips and face, and she was whisked away to St. Tammany Parish Hospital in Covington.

The men later learned the woman’s condition stabilized and she was recovering. But for them, the miraculous event in the truck bay of the Folsom Fire Department was overshadowed by a bigger concern: the nearly 20 minutes it took the ambulance to arrive.

Acadian Ambulance’s response times to the northern reaches of St. Tammany Parish are a concern for some authorities in those communities. While the company is responding to calls within the time allotted by its contract with the parish, some chiefs say lives are being left on the line for too long.

“I want more for my community than what we’re getting,” Pittman said. “We deserve better.”

Pittman wants an additional truck stationed in Folsom that would field calls in the rural areas, and he has volunteered space in one of the fire stations.

Ambulance representatives say the rural areas, which place an average of five calls a day, are too spread out and sparsely populated to support another truck and that only a small area could benefit from an addition. The company recently added trucks to the more populated parts of the parish and can arrive to some rural calls within minutes via helicopter.

Time and distance

Acadian Ambulance Services has a sole-provider contract for all services in the unincorporated portions of St. Tammany Parish. According to the contact, the Lafayette-based provider has about eight minutes to respond within the city limits of Slidell and Covington. They have about 15 minutes to respond within five miles of the two cities’ limits and 20 minutes for the remaining areas in the parish. The contract will be up for review in December.

The company can be fined if 90 percent of its calls do not average the required response times, and it has happened once since the company was hired in 1996.

Acadian responds to an average of 31 emergency calls a day in St. Tammany Parish, said Dan Lenny, who oversees Acadian operations in the parish. Of those calls, about five are in the 20-minute time zone, 17 are in the 15-minute zone and nine are in the eight-minute zone. Acadian also fields about 19 nonemergency calls a day.

“I certainly understand the fire chiefs and residents,” Lenny said. “We certainty would like to have shorter response times.”

Acadian has a contract with the city of Covington that is the same as the one with the parish, Lenny said. The parish contract requires the company to treat Slidell the same as Covington. In Mandeville, the fire department handles emergency ambulance services.

No easy solution

Parish Councilman Steve Stefancik, who helped negotiate the contract, said the outlined response times are the lowest the company can offer.

Before the contract with Acadian was established, Stefancik said, he received regular complaints from residents who waited as long as an hour for medical assistance in the rural areas. At the time, several ambulance companies operated in the parish, and there was no contractual obligation to respond within a set time to rural areas.

The ambulance company recently added more trucks to the parish to accommodate population growth since Katrina, Lenny said, but there are not enough calls to support stationing an additional ambulance in the rural areas. Because the 20-minute response zone is so large, adding a truck to one part of the rural area wouldn’t cut response times in the remaining areas, Lenny said. And because the area receives so few calls, an additional ambulance couldn’t be supported financially.

Lee Road is one of the areas that fall within the 20-minute response time. Stephanie Gibson works at Spell’s Grocery in Lee Road and has a view from behind the register of the two-lane, shoulderless highway where traffic accidents occur on a regular basis.

The ambulances “don’t know where to go . . . and it takes a long time to get here,” Gibson said.

The Lee Road area has seen increased use of an Abita Springs-based helicopter to respond to critical calls and try to combat the delay in response using ground units, said Harold Dutsch, chief of the Lee Road Fire Department.

“If it’s not tied up, it can be fired up and there in a couple of minutes,” Dutsch said.

The ambulances are equipped with a GPS system to prevent units from getting lost, Lenny said. But he agreed some locations without street signs or with long driveways are difficult to locate. The company also employs a “sprint truck” that can treat victims at the scene of an emergency and then wait for an ambulance to arrive.

Willing to do more

The Pearl River fire department has began offering ambulance service to residents within the city limits, Chief Robert Crowe said. Previously, the city contracted with private companies for the service.

The fire department averages three minutes and 26 seconds to respond, and Crowe thinks he could cut the 15- to 20-minute wait times for the remaining parts of his district outside the city limits. But the sole-provider contract with Acadian prohibits the fire department from serving those areas.

Crowe wants to let the residents in his district vote on a tax like the one those within the city pay to expand services.

“A parish contract is binding, I want to recognize it, but we’ve got to see what the will of the people is,” Crowe said.

The Parish Council views allowing fire departments to provide more widespread coverage as possibly taking away service from the other rural areas.

If Pearl River provides services to some of the rural areas, then it would take away from the number of calls Acadian receives in that zone, Stefancik said. If Acadian receives less calls, it would have less incentive to keep ambulances near the rural areas.

Although expanded service would increase times for a few residents in the Pearl River area, it might hurt response times for the parish as a whole, Stefancik said.

“As long as there is a sole provider, that service will be provided by the sole provider because it makes it more beneficial for the people of the entire parish,” Stefancik said.